Lesson observation dilemmas: part 1

This two-part post is a summary of some of the dilemmas I have faced as an observer since 1994, when I sat in on another teacher’s lesson for the first time. My intention is to raise a few (hopefully) relevant questions without necessarily proposing any easy – or complex – answers or solutions.

I will use the pronoun you to invite you to either wear your observer’s hat or put yourself in an observer’s shoes. For the sake of reader-friendliness, I will alternate between he and she when referring to the teacher who is being observed.

First, the most important question:

1. What is it exactly that you want to achieve through lesson observation?

Lesson observation seems to fall into two broad categories:

“Prescriptive” observation, which involves:

a. Helping teachers master a number of discrete skills
b. Coaching teachers in a given methodology
c. Establishing the do’s and don’ts of classroom practice
d. Helping teachers develop routinized procedures and responses to classroom events
e. Pointing out the “good” and “in need of improvement” aspects of the lesson
f. Achieving standardization and quality control

“Reflective” observation, which entails:

a. Understanding what the teacher is trying to do on its own terms
b. Helping “intuitive teachers” become “principled teachers
c. Understanding how teachers interpret a given methodology
d. Helping teachers reassess their existing beliefs and discover their own alternatives
e. Helping teachers move beyond routinized procedures and responses to classroom events
f. Giving non-judgmental feedback

When I started out, I used to think of prescriptive and reflective as two separate entities, standing in stark contrast to each other. Today I realize that this distinction is conceptually wobbly. True, novice teachers need a fair amount of objective, procedural guidance, but that doesn’t rule out the need for reflection, self-awareness and critical thinking. And the opposite is also true: More experienced professionals may sometimes need feedback of a more overt, prescriptive nature. In other words, the two categories are not mutually exclusive.

That said, when you walk into a teacher’s class, you need to be clear about what it is that you’re mostly interested in – and the key word here is mostly. She deserves to know exactly what your agenda is, what she should expect from the feedback process, and what the stakes are. So, if you’re there mostly as a non-judgmental mentor, tell her. If you’re there mostly as a manager/assessor, to ensure that certain standards are being met, tell her. If, during the feedback session, you feel the need to alternate between both roles, let her know as well. Be as transparent as you can.

And now, on to the dilemmas themselves.

2. Before-the-lesson dilemmas

Dilemma 1: Should you read the lesson plan at all?

Yes seems like the most logical answer here. Becoming a better teacher involves learning how to write sound and coherent lesson plans, so it’s only natural that you should help the teacher in that department. Far from being a straight-jacket, careful planning helps the teacher free up attentional resources during the actual lesson so she can think on her feet, focus on the students, and respond to different events as they unfold – reflect in action, if you will. But there’s something to be said for not discussing the plan beforehand.

Over the years I have been able to derive a lot of interesting insights from the (few) classes I have observed without a pre-lesson discussion. I have often found myself wondering, for example, what exactly the teacher was trying to achieve through a given activity, how the different steps were connected, and where the class was headed. These are questions that may not have crossed my mind if I’d read the plan, and, more importantly, questions that the students might have been silently asking themselves, too. So it seems that when you observe a lesson without any kind of road map, you can see things from a different vantage point, and experience the lesson from a different perspective – perhaps one that is closer to the learners’.

Dilemma 2: If you do read the lesson plan, should you intervene?

By commenting on the plan “preemptively”, you can help the teacher phrase his aims better (e.g. “enable students to talk about experiences using the present perfect with ever” vs. “teach the present perfect”), anticipate potential problems, avoid common pitfalls, and set up activities more effectively. These are, of course, key skills that a teacher needs to master.

However, you might inadvertently impose your own agenda on the teacher, and end up observing a lesson that is half his and half yours, so to speak. This in itself is not necessarily the end of the world, since your comments could encourage the teacher to take a stab at activities, techniques and strategies that he may otherwise have been unaware of. The problem is that you might make suggestions that the teacher is not developmentally ready to implement. Or, perhaps more significantly, changes that will clash with his personal learning theories – his sense of plausibility. I don’t mean to say, of course, that we shouldn’t help teachers articulate and question their own tacit theories, but the pre-lesson discussion might not be the best place to do it.

And if you do intervene, be aware that you might be blamed for whatever goes wrong in the lesson.

Dilemma 3: Should you agree on an observation focus?

To deal with the sheer complexity of lesson observation, we often isolate one or two discrete teaching skills (e.g. “Today I’m going to pay close attention to how you set up pair and group work”) and focus primarily on these during the lesson and the feedback session. This is more or less standard practice in ELT, and it makes a lot of sense, if you ask me. By narrowing down the scope of your observation, you can focus on the teacher’s most immediate needs (self-perceived or otherwise) and hopefully provide relevant feedback that she will be developmentally ready to internalize and act on.

But reality keeps getting in the way.

Over the years, time and time again, I have found myself straying from the agreed-on observation focus. Lessons are organic, living things, with a very large number of interacting variables at play, and the teacher will inevitably have to respond to classroom events that may be only marginally related to the initial focal points. This means that if you set out to observe, say, a teacher’s use of the board, you might end up paying more attention to her ability to deal with unexpected grammar questions. Or with error correction. Or disruptive students. In other words, there seems to be an inherent tension between pre-lesson discrete developmental goals and “emerging” interventions and teaching behaviors – and it’s a tension that I have always had difficulty addressing.

Another problem is that classroom phenomena are often connected, so it may be hard to establish the right focal points. For example, say you want to help a teacher present grammar more economically. There’s a possibility that her TTT might be the real culprit, and that the drown-out presentations are just the tip of the iceberg. And let’s not forget that TTT, in turn, is a subset of a teacher’s verbal behavior as a whole, which includes, for example, wait time. So, which issue do you address first, and how?

Dilemma 4: Should you walk into the classroom with the teacher, or wait a few minutes before going in?

If you watch a lesson from the very beginning, you can see for yourself how the teacher greets the students, warms them up, deals with late comers, and sets the tone for the rest of the class. But if you skip the first five or even ten minutes – which I have sometimes been asked to do – the teacher will have a chance to warm up, adjust to the energy in the room, and connect with the students before you go in. And to some people, this might make all the difference.

In the second part of this post, I will discuss some of my during-the-lesson dilemmas. Watch this space.

Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

  • Dennis Warren
    Dennis Warren
    Posted at 21:03h, 12 agosto Responder

    Hi Luiz,

    A very interesting post, and which well reflects the dilemmas I myself face when observing classes. Where I work we tried to work on the general/specific focus problem by observing each teacher twice in the same semester, the first being general, the second focusing on agreed aspects resulting from the first.

    The idea of imposing my own style on a teacher is one that worries me a lot, too. It’s difficult, but being experienced enough to know that the same aims can be achieved in different ways, and sensible enough to ask exploratory questions about a plan: how it will achieve its aims; what the purpose of a stage or activity is; and how the teacher will know if/what the learners have learned, all help but a brake on that imposition.

    I find observation fascinating, and love sitting in on colleague’s lessons. I always find out so much about learners and teacher, and about myself, that it’s a never-ending cycle of reward.

    Many thanks for the post!

  • Rubens Heredia
    Rubens Heredia
    Posted at 21:04h, 12 agosto Responder

    Hi Luiz Otávio! What a delight to read this!
    Pre-observation meetings can indeed be tricky and it takes conscious effort to refrain from (unwillingly and with the best intentions) ending up making the lesson our own rather than the teacher’s. Could this frequent prescriptive stance hinder innovation and autonomy on a larger scale?
    When observing, I often end up thinking of the quantum physics observer effect! Can we everobserve without interfering?http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/02/980227055013.htm

    Looking forward ro the next post!

  • Stephan Hughes
    Posted at 18:15h, 20 agosto Responder

    Really good read, Luiz, kuods on the post. Using your own technical terms here, it tensed more to the effective than the prescriptive side, which is more than appropriate in my view.
    When you tackle the issue of the focus of the observation, what if the teacher had the prerogative to state which areas they wanted the observer keep an eye open for? This would probably stimulate greater awareness of their competence at that moment on their professional career.

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